Interview: Drone Racing League – From Grass Roots to the Big Leagues

Kicking off season 1

Last month the Drone Racing League blew the Internet up after they launched their website, YouTube channel, and revealed that they’ll be starting the first mainstream Drone Racing League, but not just any racing league. This isn’t just a couple of guys in an abandoned factory, this is THE Drone Racing League, a new company which hopes to become the F1 of drone sports.

We caught up with Drone Racing League’s CEO & Founder Nicholas Horbaczewski and Director of Product, Ryan Gury, to talk about the future of the DRL and what’s involved when putting together such an ambitious organisation and series of races, and let me tell you, there’s some exciting things coming.

Later today, the Drone Racing League plan to launch the first part of their first ever DRL event, Level 1, which took place at the NFL’s Sun Life stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins. This is the video you may have seen already, as the DRL have already released a couple of clips ahead of the event. But what is the DRL, exactly? And what do they hope to achieve?

According to Gury, they’ve set their sights high in the hopes to be the F1 of drone racing.

“We hope to be the F1 of drone racing and we hope to put on races that really live up to what everybody’s expectations of a drone race would be. So very big, long, epic, 3D lines in ridiculously awesome venues, pilots who are talented and show remarkable skill with a multi-rotor and a drone, and a good sense of competition,”Gury revealed. “We’ve been privy to see the early signs of competition, speed, passing, and nerves when a big drone race goes down and we hope to share that with the world, it’s an exciting thing.

“We want to bring this to everyday people, we want to show this in a way that’s really appealing and exciting and in a way that they can follow. Right now the sport is really hard and a lot of the grass roots efforts are a bunch of guys with GoPros in a field, and we’re trying to develop the sport, the story of the sport, and the competition of the sport, so that it’s more of a general, mainstream audience.”

“it’s the beginning of a long road”

Already there are signs that the DRL may be on the right track. Since launching their website and YouTube channel, they managed to get around 25,000 subscribers on their YouTube channel in just under four days, which for a relatively new company, shows an incredible response. Since January, the team have been contacted by various outlets from online media to television. So things are really kicking off.

“We’ve definitely gotten an incredible response, to have tens of millions of views of your video content and more than 25,000 people subscribe to your YouTube channel in four days, it’s sort of incredible,” revealed Horbaczewski. “I’ve spent two years at Tough Mudder and it took Tough Mudder five years to get 50,000 YouTube fans, and we’ve gotten half of of that in a week, and Tough Mudder became a global brand and event series. So we’ve seen an incredibly positive response and a lot of people are just excited about it, it’s something new, it’s something exciting, and it touches on drones, it reminds people of video games, and sci-fi movies, and it really strikes a cord with a wide audience.

“We’ve had quite literally over a billion, I think we’re about to hit two billion PR impressions and the number of outlets, just this morning I was on the largest TV station in Brazil, because they’re really interested in this, it’s the beginning of a long road, right?” he added.

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“The thing to remember is that this is not a new sport, we didn’t invent drone racing, drone racing has been around for several years and it has a global following. If you Googled ‘drone racing’ and inserted any country you can think of, from Japan to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, you will find organised amateur drone racing there. There’s a big enough community that people have found each other and they get together in fields and they race drones. It’s very entertaining, and it’s also a great sport.”

In order to bring drone racing to a mainstream audience, there is of course a lot of technology involved not only on the drone side of things (we’ll get to that part later), but also on the organisation, filming, and of course, the course creation. Not only that, the DRL need to make it accessible enough to capture that mainstream audience, something I personally believe they’ve managed to do already.

The first event, which we’ll see the first part of later today, has already taken place at one of the biggest NFL stadiums in the United States, but what about future events? How exactly does the DRL determine the best place to create a fantastic racing line? Fortunately, the DRL have a plan for that one.

“you truly cannot put any other craft, not a car, not a plane, nothing else can fly in these spaces”

“We have a good part of the season set already, we’ll be announcing those as we go, so they’ll sort of be a part of our strategy for talking to folks about what’s going on, we’ll announce the venues and the locations.” Horbaczewski revealed. “Since we’ve launched we’ve gotten some really incredible response inbound from people who have really interesting places in interesting cities, so you know we intentionally left ourselves a little bit of flexibility to exactly where the last few events of the season would be and we’re starting to have some great conversations.

“One of the fun things about this sport is that if you find the right venue, you can do it almost anywhere, right? I mean you see us racing in abandoned power plants, NFL stadiums, and one thing we can promise people is that throughout the course of this year you will see increasingly elaborate settings we’re putting these things. And it’s all the venues if you walk in and say, ‘I’d like to fly around this venue like a bird’ those are the kind of races we want to take drone racing, because you can do this racing in places you truly cannot put any other craft, not a car, not a plane, nothing else can fly in these spaces.”

“There’s a bit of trial and error [creating a racing line],” Gury added. “There’s three big inputs to a drone line, the first one being, ‘what’s the most exceptional 3D line from a pilots perspective’, so we go in there and we fly different lines and we take a look at the course line and from a sporting point of view, what makes the best and ambitious flight line, what’s the most exciting thing, what’s the most challenging thing, what’s going to be fair for the rest of the pilots.

“So we really analyse the flight lines, and that’s a big group decision. DRL has a full-time staff of pilots and we go in and really test it out. Then we mix-in media, what makes the best camera angles, and where we should set up the cameras, and where do we have the strongest radio reception, and how do we plan around that.”

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On the more technological side of things, having the best set up for an FPV (First Person View) drone isn’t easy and is something which has shown its problems at other drone racing events. So that’s why the Drone Racing League have been working hard to develop their own system to ensure the best signal possible, regardless. This is something especially necessary when creating racing lines in different locations.

“The core to FPV flying is radios, pilots wear googles and they see video from the drone, and if the video were to stop working or to skip for half a second, you’d lose that core link to the drone, you wouldn’t be able to see and crash. So that’s the big thing to any drone race,” revealed Gury. “We have a network that we custom designed to each venue and we’ve been developing that for a while and that allows our drones to fly around objects and up and down levels, in a very complex environment. And that’s tailored to each level that we go to.”

The drones themselves have also been custom designed for the DRL races to ensure that everything runs without a hitch. Each drone has a front-facing camera which sends back a video feed to the pilot, it also comes emblazoned with coloured LEDs across the chassis to allow both the pilot teams as well as the audience easily follow the drones. Pilots are however allowed to tweak their drones to their own preference.

“we’re pioneering something totally new”

“We custom make a fleet of drones in-house. An FPV racing drone is a little bit different than an areal cinematography drone, like a Phantom, instead of having a camera on the bottom of the drone which can be used for taking pictures and video, the camera is located on the front of the drone, and you fly with a pair of video goggles with a video feed from that camera on the drone, and it’s more of a front-mounted camera so that when you’re going forward, you’re looking forward,” explained Gury. “So we design our drones in-house to be top performing, using the latest performance parts available, we have custom radios to allow our drones to go far and travel through mile-long lines through a venue, and we surround our drones with colour changing lights so our audience can see who’s winning and who’s losing, the same with the pilots.”

“We work with a lot of pilots to make these drones and we incorporate their feedback with each level. We’re currently on our third or fourth iteration of the drone and each time we have a level we take feedback from one version to the next. So it’s an evolving rig that we use to make sure that this is going to happen,” he added. “You can’t rely on pilots or off the shelf FPV performance drones, they don’t exist yet, or they’re made in a garage or basement by a pilot, and it takes a lot of drones to have a race over a period of days, and we can control that and for, one the piloting skill is the thing that shines, and two we have a stable racing venue and race to that there’s always drones in the air, they’re always flying and they fly far.”

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“The pilots do get to tune the drones though, there’s lots of settings on the drones which control different elements on how they fly,” added Horbaczewski. “So the pilots will tune it to a custom set of tunings. A bit like tuning a race car where drivers have a different preference on tire pressure, shock stiffness, they get to tune those same elements of the drone to customise the way they fly.”

“We also send the pilots test rigs so that they have time before a certain race to get used to it, so a month and a half, two months before a race, we’ll send all of the upcoming pilots an actual drone so they can learn how to fly and kind of get used to so they become one with them,” Gury concluded.

Currently, the DRL plan to share the events from Season 1 on their YouTube channel and on their website. Each event is pre-recorded and clips are spliced together to create what you’re hopefully going to see later today. The reason for this however isn’t due to network limitations or regulations, it’s simply a way for the DRL to maximise the events’ reach, but they do hope to host live events in the future.

“I actually don’t think making this safe for an audience is a big challenge”

“This is a brand new sport, we’re using all kinds of different technologies, we’re pioneering something totally new, so we’ve chosen intentionally to limit the number of variables we’re dealing with,” explained Horbaczewski. “Doing live TV sports well is something hard to do, no matter what sport you’re doing. Even if you’re filming soccer, a really well-known sport where there isn’t a lot of technology on the field, so we’ve chosen to start with post-produced media, and we’ve said we’ll move to live broadcasts, we’ll move to live events with audiences, it’s just a question of staging the evolution of this as we go.

“I think about some of these test events we’ve done so far, and we’ve realised how exciting this is live. It’s really fun to watch live, the drones are loud, they’re bright, it’s easy to follow what’s going on and it feels a lot like going to a NASCAR or F1 race, it really has all of the elements of heart pounding racing everyone loves, so we’re excited to bring it to a mass audience, we just need to be careful that every experience we’re providing is top notch.”

One thing we did wonder is whether there were any things in place to prevent accidents happening during live events. You’ve got small drones flying around at 70mph in some cases equipped with four spinning rotors. If something were to go wrong, then it’d go wrong in a pretty horrifying way. Fortunately the DRL has this covered.

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“We’ve got pretty advanced safety protocols. If you think about it even in the event in Miami we had 100+ people between the pilots and the drone crew and the camera crew and the event crew, so we’re already dealing with drones and a big crowd and we’ve developed a very robust safety protocol that we think is pioneering what it means to have high-speed drones in an enclosed space with people. We’re also the first people to get insurance to have live drone racing events, we have specific insurance to cover the show, that shows the depth of work we’ve done on the safety question.

“I actually don’t think making this safe for an audience is a big challenge, I think it’s more, the expectations about what your experience is going to be, so all those other things outside not specific to drone racing, but you always expect a good concession stand and there to be easy places to sit and ushers to tell you where to sit down, so all of those things right is a whole separate challenge and set of issues to tackle when the time comes,” Horbaczewski concluded.

The Drone Racing League’s first race, as part of their first season, can be viewed above or via the DRL website.

All images and video were supplied courtesy of the Drone Racing League.

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